The Washington Post

Can Obama defy history in second midterm election?

President Obama is only months removed from running his last campaign for political office, but his interest in the next round of congressional elections some 20 months away is already ramping up, with a goal of making historic gains in the House.

(Charles Dharapak/AP) (Charles Dharapak/AP)

In a lengthy Sunday piece, The Washington Post's Scott Wilson and Philip Rucker explained Obama's designs on retaking control of the House in 2014, with an eye on cementing his legacy during the final two years of office. From their story:

Obama, fresh off his November reelection, began almost at once executing plans to win back the House in 2014, which he and his advisers believe will be crucial to the outcome of his second term and to his legacy as president. He is doing so by trying to articulate for the American electorate his own feelings — an exasperation with an opposition party that blocks even the most politically popular elements of his agenda.

All of which raises the obvious question: What are his chances of succeeding?

One way to gauge Obama's odds is to view the task in from of him through two lenses, balancing his challenge against both long-term historical trends and the landscape he's facing in 2014.

Either way you slice it, it looks very difficult. Here's a look at why, in some more detail:

What history says: 

* In the past century, only one president -- Bill Clinton -- has gained congressional seats in his second midterm -- and even then, it was not enough to win back the majority in the House. In 1998, Clinton's Democratic Party picked up five seats in the House, while the Senate stayed the same. So, it's pretty difficult to make second midterm gains, period. What's more, House Democrats need to gain 17 seats to win back the majority in 2014, more than three times what the party netted during Clinton's second midterm. And as Wilson and Rucker note, Clinton's 1998 approval rating was 14 points higher then than Obama's is now.

* It's also worth keeping in mind that two-term presidents in the post-World War II era simply haven't been as popular in their second terms as they were in their first. And without a popular president, life for Democratic congressional candidates won't be so fun in 2014. Gallup found that since Harry Truman, only two presidents -- Clinton and Ronald Reagan -- were more popular in their second terms than in their first. The five others' numbers started to decline in the lead up to their second midterms. Now, that said, it's worth keeping in mind that Obama's first-term Gallup numbers looked remarkably similar to Clinton's first-term numbers. And if the similarity keeps up as 2016 approaches, the president will be in sound political shape.

What the 2014 landscape looks like: 

* While they narrowed House Republicans' majority last November, Democrats still face a steep climb toward netting the 17 seats they need to win the majority in 2014. Thanks in part to to the decennial redistricting process, the House map is more polarized than in recent years, with fewer of the "swing" districts that are most vulnerable to flipping control. And more districts lean Republican than Democratic, which only toughens the task before the current minority party. In a nutshell, not only is it a historically tough task to pick up seats in the second midterm, but the specifics of the upcoming one don't make the work any easier.

* The Senate landscape shouldn't be overlooked in all of this. Over in the upper chamber, Republicans -- for the third cycle in a row -- have a realistic chance of regaining the majority. The Democratic Caucus padded its majority in 2012, and currently holds a 55-45 advantage over the GOP. But with Democrats defending a dozen seats in red or swing states, there is definitely room for Republicans to pick up the six they need to win the majority, assuming they don't cough up any of their own seats. In short, regardless of what happens in the House, there is no guarantee Obama's party will control the Senate in 2015.

As Wilson and Rucker note, Obama is not sitting back. He's taking the challenge in front of him head on, committing to more fundraisers for House candidates, and putting the muscle of his campaign organization behind the effort, too. And he's emboldened by a reelection win that reaffirmed the strength of his coalition and has boosted his popularity. There's a certain "strike while the iron is hot" mentality at work here. So while Obama's task is no ordinary one, neither is the effort he is applying.

The president will hope to boost his popularity -- and that of Democrats -- beyond the bloc of voters Democrats consistently count on. Obama has to expand his popularity into some unfriendly terrain, given the extent to which the House map favors Republicans.

If the next 18 months go well for Obama, and his approval rating ticks up, then Republicans will have their hands full. If not, then, well, the president can likely kiss any hopes of a Democratic House majority goodbye.

In summary, will it be it hard for Obama to do what he wants? Very. He and his team surely know that. But they also know how much success would be worth, politically. So, this much is clear: The ability to use the president's final two years in office to move major legislation through Congress is a reward substantial enough to propel Obama to try go get himself to that point, however difficult it may be.

Sean Sullivan has covered national politics for The Washington Post since 2012.

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